Hot meals and warm hearts for cold win­ter nights

Ni­a­gara Falls Com­mu­nity Out­reach opens its door for all at free com­mu­nity suppers

The Niagara Falls Review - - Front Page - PAUL FORSYTH

When peo­ple hear the words “soup kitchen,” they may equate it with low­brow food. That is, un­til they walk through the doors of Ni­a­gara Falls Com­mu­nity Out­reach, which op­er­ates a year-round soup kitchen on Lawrence Av­enue.

In par­tic­u­lar, when they head over to the for­mer Mor­mon church build­ing for the nightly, free com­mu­nity suppers that launched on Nov. 1 and run un­til the end of April, their per­cep­tion of soup kitchen food will be for­ever changed.

That’s be­cause, through the self­less ded­i­ca­tion of an army of about 300 vol­un­teers and the deep con­nec­tions that NFCO has made with nu­mer­ous com­mu­nity part­ners, meals and lunches served from the high-end, com­mer­cial-grade kitchen are any­thing but lowend.

In­side the gleam­ing kitchen, barely an hour be­fore the doors opened for the first of the cold-weather din­ners on a rainy, blus­tery evening, vol­un­teers Judy Todd, Jane Shores, Joanne Hoare, Mary Ellen White and Bev Walsh were busy mak­ing mouth-wa­ter­ing, hand­made food for the peo­ple soon to pour in.

On the menu that night: trays of cheese ravi­oli, meat­balls, green salad, bread. and home­made, fresh caramel-ap­ple cake with whipped top­ping.

“It’s com­fort food for a night like this,” said agency chair and fundrais­ing lead Chris

Watling, also help­ing out with hus­band Harry Watling.

The agency serves up al­most 44,000 meals a year, be­tween the lunches served ev­ery week­day year-round, and the cold-weather suppers served seven days a week from 5 to 6 p.m. over the six­month pe­riod with the ex­cep­tion of Christ­mas Eve and Christ­mas Day, and New Year’s Eve and

New Year's Day.

Watling said that’s all done on a bud­get of $140,000, all of which must be fundraised. “We re­ceive no gov­ern­ment sup­port,” she said.

The well-oiled ma­chine runs with a sin­gle staff per­son: kitchen man­ager Holly Voice, who Watling said is a ge­nius at or­ga­niz­ing and man­ag­ing food do­na­tions that fill the kitchen’s walkin freezer. Among the many churches, busi­nesses and other donors who sup­port the soup kitchen, Watling said, the two Ni­a­gara Falls casi­nos send four ship­ments of food to NFCO each week.

But it’s not throw­away food. “It’s cooked fresh food,” said Watling. “It’s not left-over; it’s flashed frozen and brought here.

“We get chicken, ribs, Sal­is­bury steak, meat­balls, sausage, lamb chops, chili, shep­herd’s pie.”

The evening din­ners are allinclu­sive events that draw peo­ple from var­i­ous back­grounds, ages and needs. The en­try cost? Sim­ply treat­ing peo­ple with re­spect.

“It’s an open-door pol­icy — any­body’s wel­come,” said Watling.

“There is re­spect we give to our vol­un­teers; there is re­spect we give to our guests,” she said.

“The meals are served with the in­ten­tion to pro­vide nour­ish­ment to their body, but (with) dig­nity, not judg­ing why.”

Each evening, dif­fer­ent groups of up to 14 peo­ple step up, from stu­dents from A.N. Myer Sec­ondary School and Saint Paul Catholic High School, to vol­un­teers from var­i­ous churches, com­mu­nity groups and busi­nesses, to prep, cook, clean and serve. One man drives in all the way from Ni­a­gara-on-the-Lake with two friends to scrub pots and pans clean.

“We have peo­ple in their 80s and early 90s who have been here for years,” said Watling.

Tues­day nights, it’s vol­un­teers from Our Lady of the Scapu­lar Church who han­dle the meals. That’s the night that two of the ladies take turns over­see­ing cook­ing of meat loaf — but ask for the se­cret recipe and you’ll get a stern scowl of dis­ap­proval.

Just as agen­cies op­er­at­ing food banks in Ni­a­gara have seen de­mand con­tin­u­ing to in­crease, de­mand has also been climb­ing at the soup kitchen’s lunches. It’s likely the suppers will also see num­bers climb.

“The lunches have been higher this sum­mer,” said Watling. “Our av­er­age lunch is about 100 peo­ple a day, (but) we’ve had many days with 125, 140.”

In the face of that con­tin­u­ing in­crease in de­mand, agency vol­un­teer Judy Todd said NFCO is launch­ing a new cam­paign with pam­phlets and emails, with the goal of rais­ing enough to serve the din­ners year-round. Peo­ple or busi­nesses are be­ing asked to do­nate enough to pay for 100 din­ners (about $350), or to do­nate time for such things as pre­par­ing and serv­ing food, and do­ing cleanup.

“We’re think­ing as a team­build­ing ex­er­cise for of­fices they might to do that, or (for) a fam­ily in­stead of giv­ing Christ­mas gifts they can do­nate the money,” said Todd.

Once peo­ple come into the soup kitchen and see how it op­er­ates, she said, it’s usu­ally a pleas­ant eye-opener for them.

“We find, once peo­ple come here, they see what a great char­ity it is,” she said. “Be­cause we only have one staff per­son, (do­na­tions) go right to the food, right to the peo­ple.

“Peo­ple like the fact that all the money they’re do­nat­ing goes to feed­ing peo­ple who are hun­gry.”

PAUL FORSYTH METROLAND

Ready for open­ing night of the daily com­mu­nity suppers be­ing served from the Ni­a­gara Falls Com­mu­nity Out­reach kitchen were, from left: Judy Todd, Jane Shores, Joanne Hoare, Chris Watling, Mary Ellen White, Bev Walsh and Harry Watling.

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